Some thoughts on Catechisms and Christina Rossetti’s ‘What Are Heavy?’

It’s Sunday today. A miserable, cold, grey, damp January-in-England Sunday, but Sunday all the same.

Fifty-five years ago, Sunday would have seen me at Mass in the morning, usually up in the choir loft, joyously singing in a clear high soprano voice that I had not yet understood I would one day lose.

I don’t go to Mass anymore. Forty-five years ago, I finally accepted that I had no faith in religion and no belief in God. I did miss the singing though.

This Sunday morning, I came across a poem by Christina Rossetti that seemed to me to be a kind of Catechism although she calls it a nursery rhyme, and I found myself thinking about how I was taught about Catholicism and how it changed over the years.

In my teens, I had some clever, thoughtful teachers, two nuns and a Jesuit priest, who combined deep and self-evident faith with a willingness and ability to discuss the most puzzling and the most challenging aspects of the faith. They introduced me to apologia by Aquinas and Newman and Loyola’s ‘Spiritual Exercises’. What they did best was to listen and give thoughtful responses and show me the strength of their faith.

I loved the elegance of the argumentation and I respected the strength that they drew from their faith, I also understood that I didn’t have and would never have their certainty. I told myself I didn’t trust it and I didn’t need it. Now, I wonder if I’m simply not built for it. If my biochemistry makes me as immune to faith as I am to caffeine. I still enjoy coffee, It just doesn’t do anything to alter how I think or feel.

The early days of my Catholic education, from when I was five to when I took my first Holy Communion at seven, took a very different form. We were taught the Catechism by rote from a little red book produced by the Catholic Truth Society (CTS).

The current version of the CTS Catechism is a scholarly, elegant, illustrated, 732 page book, which includes the Apostolic Creed and prayers from the Mass. It’s not something you give to children of five or six.

The word catechism derives from the Greek katēkhesis “instruction by word of mouth”.

The version I had at school in 1962 was a slim little red book, almost a pamphlet, that would fit in my pocket. It laid out the truth according to the Catholic faith as a series of questions to which there were straightforward and definitive answers. We learned both the questions and the answers.

I don’t even have to close my eyes to recall how it started:

1. Who made you? God made me.

2. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in this world and the next.

Unlike today, there was no discussion, no context, no interpretation, just The Truth.

I see the power of the approach, especially in non-literate societies but, even as a child, I was suspicious of it. I think it was the certainty of the answers that I struggled with.

So, back to Christina Rossetti. I came across ‘What Are Heavy?’ one of the rhymes in, ‘Sing-Song: a nursery rhyme book’ that she published in 1872. The form reminded me of my old Catechism but the content is very different. Here’s the poem:

What Are Heavy?

What are heavy? Sea-sand and sorrow;
What are brief? Today and tomorrow;
What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth;
What are deep? The ocean and truth.

From 'Sing-Song: a nursery rhyme book' 1872 by Christina Rossetti

I love that, although the answers to these questions are brief, they are not simple. They set out not to instruct but to stimulate. The answers combine the physical and the metaphysical in a way that silently asserts that they are both threads of the same cloth. The language pleases my ear and lures me into thinking about what both the questions and the answers mean.

I may be immune to faith but I’m happy not to be immune to poetry.

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